Yawning Opportunity Gap for Our Kids Because We Don’t View Them All As Ours

A recently-published book by Professor Robert Putnam warns that the American Dream is in crisis. We’ve had ample evidence of the symptoms for some time. But the fundamental issues Putnam raises seem to me more relevant than ever.

Other research has already told us that children who grow up in low-income families tend to remain low-income as adults, who then have low-income children, etc. Conversely, children who grow up in well-off families generally remain well-off. And so forth.

We’ve also had research showing that whom you’re born to has become more determinative in the last 30 or 40 years — a major point for Putnam.

He focuses on two related reasons. First, the “opportunity gap,” i.e., disparities in the resources parents and communities invest in children, has grown.

And second, we no longer think of everybody’s children as “our kids” because families have become increasingly segregated by income, education, neighborhood and related measures.

Thus, well-off families invest in their own children and what their own children will directly benefit from, e.g., the schools they attend. But they neither know much nor care much about the opportunities for children in the depressed neighborhoods across town.

We’re on our way to becoming a society where class is hereditary, he told a recent gathering (and those of us virtually present). The graphs he showed confirmed the basis for the alarm bells he’s trying to set off.

He referred to most of them as “scissors graphs” because the lines tracking the developmental opportunities children have grow further and further apart over time. Likewise factors he views as related, e.g., two parents in the home.

Now, the opportunities he dwells on don’t altogether explain why children born to poor and near-poor parents tend to remain stuck in the bottom fifth of the income scale.

Those resources their parents don’t have include money for food, decent, stable housing in a safe neighborhood, high-quality child care (unless they’re among the shrinking number for whom it’s subsidized), diapers …. Well, I needn’t go on with this inventory.

We know from other research that food insecurity, homelessness or even just moving from one home to another and then another and the stress parents inevitably communicate when they’re struggling with such things all put children at a disadvantage in the classroom.

We know that low-income children often don’t benefit from high-quality early education. Lack of resources, parental and public, mean that inequalities begin at “the starting gate,” as the Economic Policy Institute entitles its report on the problem.

This, I think, is why Putnam says that schools aren’t to blame for the widening income gap, though they don’t narrow it either. But he cites a related factor that, in his view, is — the unequal opportunities children have to participate in extracurricular activities.

Playing organized sports or in a band or orchestra, he says, teaches teamwork and develops what’s now often called grit — the will to keep working at something, despite setbacks and frustrations.

All children used to have opportunities of this sort. They now cost, on average, $800 a year, he says. That’s nothing, of course, for well-off parents, but more than some low-income parents can afford.

Even low-income children who beat the odds and not only graduate from high school, but go on to college don’t overcome the opportunity gap. Only 29% who scored high on standardized tests graduate, while 74% of high-income students do.

The difference here, Putnam says, is mostly not tuition costs or the formidable loans that all but well-off students must incur to gain a degree.

It’s rather a reflection of the investments parents made much earlier — the time they spent interacting with their infants and toddlers, the dinners that brought the whole family together, the religious services they attended, etc.

What this seems to mean is that the low-income students are in some way not prepared for college, test scores notwithstanding. I find this baffling.

Even if what Putnam calls our “pay to play” extracurricular system denied them an opportunity develop grit, they surely have it or they wouldn’t have learned what those test scores reflect, given the well-known problems of the schools they’re likely to have attended.

More baffling is the way he slides over the link between early opportunities children have — or don’t — and the color of their skin, a point the Washington Post‘s reviewer touched on.

If the time and money parents have to invest in their children is correlated to their income, then race discrimination, both past and present, deserves far more attention.

Putanm tends to use parental education, rather than income per se in his analyses — this, it seems, because he’s most concerned about the divide between social classes.

We’ve always had large racial disparities in college-level degrees. But even blacks who’ve graduated from college generally get paid less than whites, as the Economic Policy Institute’s analyses show.

If relatively more low-income children have only a mother to provide the interactions he views as so critical, it’s partly because most low-income women (like their better-off counterparts) want to marry reliable breadwinners.

So the disadvantages black men suffer in our labor market, e.g., higher unemployment rates, lower wages, help explain why a high percent of black mothers are single.

If low-income black children don’t always have fathers investing quality time in them, it’s also in part because our criminal justice system puts a disproportionate number of black men behind bars, thus giving them an additional disadvantage when they’re released.

And if communities consist of class-based enclaves, that’s partly because of discriminatory zoning and other housing policies — and discriminatory practices by lenders, real estate agents and landlords.

Putnam’s nevertheless right in saying that policy choices have widened the opportunity gap — and that policy choices can narrow it. Those he recommends are themselves fairly narrow.

This perhaps is because, as he stresses, he’s trying to start a national conversation about a problem that’s got no simple, quick fixes. But it’s also because he’s focused on children, especially the very young — and on what could conceivably prove politically feasible.

So nothing new here, as Jill Lepore’s account in The New Yorker says. But we don’t need new as much as do. And, as she also (sort of) says, we can’t count on much do from our federal policymakers.

The book is nevertheless timely — more so than I think Putnam expected — because it calls on us to consider whom we view as our kids and, more broadly, as members of our community.

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One Response to Yawning Opportunity Gap for Our Kids Because We Don’t View Them All As Ours

  1. Robert Putnam has done some good writing and social research, though his sort of famous concepts of social capital (‘bowling alone’) are not exactly new or ‘rocket science’ —-this is true for many concepts in the social sciences—that may sound arrogant, but these ideas do not require a phD to be understood.

    half the problem to me is many people do not have incentivies, time or money to understand these simple ideas. some people i know basically do low paid jobs, and spend free time partying, getting high, going to church, watching tv. Thgey dont make much money and basically half of it is spent on alcohol, ciagrettes, junk food, cable tv, etc. (I will say i also have low income, and also squander alot of my money—part of this is due to peer pressure basically—i study alot, but my social interactions are mostly with people who want me to hang with them and drink watch tv, etc).

    Putnam and others like him—progressive academics—are often at elite places like him—Harvard. To me that says it all. The most popular Harvard course i’ve heard is one taught by Scanlon on social justice. The people who go to Harvard typically join the ‘elite’. And they avoid the poor (for good reasons—otherwise they end up like me—-spend half your life standing on a corner.)

    Harvard , or Putnam, basically arent going to open their doors, or make a place , so people standing on corners have some alternative to that. Putnam probably makes over 100G$, plus he gets book royalties and may have a spouse who works.

    Putnam writes more books, which are usually read by the educated, and often elite people. I guess many similar elites were involved in both slavery abolition, civil rights, etc—so that may be the way it has to be. ‘change comes from the top’—EB Dubois had a Harvard PhD; MLK went to boston college.

    Policy changes may or do have some effect. There were several shootings in my area the past week. Alot of public housing in DC was lost partly because of shootings. I know many progressive groups that ‘don’t discriminate’. But they will not tolerate the behavior , attitudes, almost total anti-intellectualism etc. you see on the street. Alot of poor and low income people are trying to keep it together. But they are swamped by pop culture (eg gagngsta rap—which i happen to listen to), fashion, gentrification, and so on.Around here alot of people sell any public assistance funds for illegal stuff.

    why doesnt R Putnam show up here and teach a class. (Some people i know might go if they had an incentive—even get paid 5$. )

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